GRAPEVINE, Texas — Oklahoma is back in the College Football Playoff, and the Sooners did it with defense.
As expected, OU is ranked No. 4 in the final CFP rankings, revealed Sunday on ESPN, following Saturday’s 30-23 overtime victory over Baylor in the Big 12 Conference championship game.
OU (12-1) makes its third playoff appearance in three seasons under coach Lincoln Riley. The Sooners face No. 1 LSU (13-0) in the playoff semifinals on Dec. 28 in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.
No. 2 Ohio State (13-0) plays No. 3 and defending champ Clemson (13-0) in the other semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona.
The Peach Bowl will be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and represents a matchup of the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses in major college football.
The Sooners also made the playoff in 2015, 2017 and 2018. In six seasons of the four-team playoff, OU has failed to make the field just twice (2014, 2016).
“We’re really, really excited to be back in the playoff,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “A lot of teams start with that dream, and for this team to accomplish all we have up to this point and give ourselves an opportunity to keep playing and face a great team like LSU in the semifinals is reflective of everyone’s hard work and focus. It’s going to be fun and we’re really looking forward to the challenge.”
The CFP selection committee met Saturday and Sunday at the Gaylord Texan Hotel and decided the rankings, and they were impressed with the Sooners’ defensive turnaround.
“Yeah, significant difference,” said CFP executive director Bill Hancock. “Last year was an historic offense, and a defense with two question marks behind it. And this year it’s a darn good offense and a darn good defense. So just a night-and-day difference in the tenor of the discussion about Oklahoma from this year to last year.”
Hancock said the CFP hasn’t regretted putting OU in with shoddy defenses each of the last two seasons.
“There’s no buyer’s remorse,” he said. “Oklahoma deserved to be there the last two years and they deserve to be there this year.”
Riley reiterated on a teleconference Sunday afternoon that he was pleased with the progress the defense has made under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch.
“Defensively, no doubt, we’ve played very well this year,” Riley said. “Give coach Grinch (and) our staff a lot of credit. And then our players, the guys have bought into a new system, a new coach, new mentality, certainly, on that side of the ball. While we’re still improving, we have done a lot of good things and, we think, made some good progress.”
Since losing 48-41 at Kansas State on oct. 26, OU has won its last five games, including four against opponents that have appeared in the rankings. The Sooners’ loss and an open date preceded this year’s initial rankings, and OU has climbed almost every week.
The Sooners opened the rankings at No. 9, then fell to No. 10 after beating Iowa State, then moved back to No. 9 after winning at Baylor. OU then climbed to No. 7 after beating TCU, then moved to No. 6 after closing the regular season by winning at Oklahoma State.
Losses by Alabama, Georgia, Minnesota, Oregon, Penn State and Utah cleared the Sooners’ path back into the Final Four.
LSU opened the CFP rankings at No. 2, then moved to No. 1 for two weeks before dropping back to No. 2 behind Ohio State the last two weeks. The Tigers’ ascension this week was a product of Saturday’s dominant 37-10 victory over then-No. 4 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
LSU’s non-conference schedule ranks ninth nationally, according to teamrankings.com, and includes victories over Georgia Southern, Northwestern State and Utah State, in addition to a 45-38 victory over Texas in Austin back in Week 2.
The Tigers’ best victories in the SEC were 42-28 over Florida (10-2), 23-20 over Auburn (9-3), 46-41 over Alabama (10-2) and 37-10 over Georgia (11-2).
Coach Ed Orgeron, a noted recruiting ace, was hired as LSU’s defensive line coach in 2015 and replaced Les Miles in September of the 2016 season on an interim basis. He was promoted in November 2016, and he’s compiled a 38-9 record in Baton Rouge.
Orgeron promoted tight ends coach Steve Ensminger to offensive coordinator, and then last offseason he hired New Orleans Saints aide Joe Brady as his wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator. Brady, one of five finalists and the frontrunner for the Frank Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in college football, has worked with Ensminger to revamp what has been an infamously moribund offense.
Quarterback Joe Burrow — who transferred from Ohio State last year — is widely considered the frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy this week in New York (Heisman finalists will be announced Monday.) Burrow, a senior, ranks second in the nation at 362.7 passing yards per game, and his passer efficiency rating (201.5) ranks second behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
Wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase leads the nation in receiving yards (124.8 yards per game, 1,498 total yards) and receiving touchdowns (18).
As a team, the Tigers lead the nation in total offense, 554.4 yards per game, while Oklahoma has dropped to No. 2 nationally at 554.2.
Defensively, the Sooners are ranked No. 24 in total yards allowed, while LSU ranks No. 32.
“You know, it says a lot about your team to get in the College Football Playoff, especially playing in the conference that we play,” Orgeron said. “So obviously, it’s an accomplishment. But it’s not the final destination.”
Selection committee chairman Rob Mullens said during the ESPN broadcast that OU beat out Georgia for the No. 4 spot, but not after some discussion. Georgia was ranked No. 4 last week and lost to LSU by four touchdowns.
“That conference championship and second win against Baylor moved them into the No. 4 spot,” Mullens said. “We did some time talking about Oklahoma and Georgia but in the end it was a solid Oklahoma selection for the No. 4 spot.
“We put (Georgia) on the board. We want to be thorough. We did have Oklahoma and Georgia on the board and Oklahoma was the No. 4 team.”
Later, Mullens said, “It was clear Oklahoma was four.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.